On a cold Monday morning in March, when a weak, pale sun struggled to shine and ice glistened in the cracks in the wooden street, a company of some twenty-two orphan children with stiff new clothes and little cardboard suitcases boarded a special railway car at the station near the Chicago River. I know, because I was one of them.
The station was noisier and more confused than Halsted Street on market day. Travelers carrying featherbeds and bundles wrapped in blue gingham cloth shoved me aside in their hurry to get here or there. A man in a bright red jacket bumped into me and apologized in a language I did not know. At least I assumed it was an apology, because of all the bowing and tipping of his hat, so I said, "It's all right, mister, but I'd say you should know a little English if you expect to get wherever you're going." He tipped his hat again.
One woman, burdened with children, blankets, a tin kettle, and a three-legged stove, finally put that stove right down on the platform, sat herself atop it, and began to cry. I knew how she felt. I myself was a mite worried--not scared, being twelve and no baby like Evelyn or Gertie to be afraid of every little thing, but worried, yes. It was all so loud and disorderly and unfamiliar.
I forced my way through the crowd and grabbed on to a belt in front of me. The boy it belonged to said, "Hang on tight, Rodzina, afore we're swept into the lake like sewage." It was Spud, whom I knew from the Little Wanderers' Refuge. He and Chester, Gertie, Horton, Rose and Pearl Lubnitz, the baby Evelyn, and I--we had been there together. The others were from the Infant Hospital and the Orphan Asylum near Hyde Park. Orphans, all of us, carrying all we owned in our two hands, pushing and shoving like everyone else.
A lady, standing straight and tall in a black suit and stiff white shirtwaist, put her hands up to her mouth and shouted, but I could not hear much over the din. I finally gathered that she was from the Orphan Asylum and was calling us all together. Letting go of Spud's belt, I stretched myself even taller so I could get a better look at her over that expanse of heads. She was pale and thin, her mouth ill-humored, and her gray eyes as cold and sharp as the wire rims of her spectacles. I should have known they would not send someone kind and good-natured to accompany a carload of orphans.
Roaring and cursing, a short, barrel-shaped man togged out in a checked jacket and yellow shoes pushed his way through the crowd. "You! Orphans!" he shouted, the cigar in the corner of his mouth waving and waggling with his words. "Pipe down! I am Mr. Szprot, the placing-out agent for the Association of Aid Societies. That means I am the boss and you do what I tell you. You are, you know, none of you, too young to go to Hell. Or to jail. So shut your mugs and line up." After my time on the street I was used to being threatened with Hell, so it didn't bother me much, but still I shut my mug. There was silence from the other orphans too, and we walked noiselessly to the train.
Trains had hooted and rumbled behind our house on Honore Street, but I had never seen a locomotive up so close, looming like the fearful dragon of Wawel Hill in the story Auntie Manya used to tell, its smokestack belching sparks, and a line of cars trailing behind like a tail of wood and iron. If I had been younger or smaller, even I might have been scared.
Getting on this train had not been my idea. I wanted to go home. But I had no home anymore, except the Little Wanderers' Refuge, and they had sent me away to be sold as a slave. I knew that because a kid on the street, Melvin, had told me. "That orphanage ships kids on trains to the west," he said. "In freight cars. Don't feed 'em or nothin'. Sells 'em to families that want slaves." He shook his head. "Orphans never come to no good end." I found that easy to believe, so I believed every word.
No, I surely did not want to get on the train, but the crowd of orphans shoved me onward. The long black wool stockings they'd given me at the orphan home itched something fierce, and pausing midway up the iron steps, I bent down to scratch my knees. Three orphans knocked right into me.
"You, Polish girl," said Mr. Szprot, his voice even louder than his jacket, "try not to be so clumsy."
A big boy behind me snickered. "Clumsy Polish girl," he said. "Ugly cabbage eater." Accidentally on purpose I swung my suitcase and cracked him on the knee. I knew he wouldn't try to get even with Mr. Szprot so close.
Once up the steps, I looked back. This was the last I'd ever see of Chicago, this view of soot and ice and metal tracks. On such a cold, gray, blustery morning, it looked like a dead place, but at least it was familiar. Chicago had always meant Mama and Papa and the boys. Now Mama and Papa and the boys were gone, home was gone, and soon Chicago would be gone. I felt like I was jumping out a seventh-story window, not at all sure someone was down below to catch me. I scratched my knees again and, holding tight to my suitcase, went in.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Rodzina
by Karen Cushman
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